I find walls endlessly fascinating and, knowing of my interest, my wife Rohan beckoned me over. She was standing on a tiny enclosed terrace and suggested I take a close look at one of its surrounding walls – there was something special that I should not miss. Staring at the massive, regular, cream-coloured sandstone blocks was, itself, mesmerising. Then an odd feature emerged. As I looked, I realised that on every stone there were easy-to-miss, distinct, marks. Initially, they had to be graffiti or possibly chance scratches but the explanation was very different; each of the geometric markings, which were no bigger than my little finger, was the signature of the mason who had cut and shaped the particular block. More remarkable, these inscriptions were cut into the surface over 600 years ago.
We discovered the signatures while visiting a tower near the centre of Paris. It was all that remained of a medieval palace built in 1411 for John the Fearless (Jean sans Peur). Local guidebooks had suggested we go to the top of the tower to see its celebrated ceiling with oak leaves, hops and hawthorns sculpted in stone. For me though, it was the mason’s markings that were the more extraordinary. How wonderful it was that individual masons could be publicly recognised for their work. It was the end of anonymity and with it the beginning of giving credit where it is due.
Masons were not, however, the only artisans to sign their work. In the early fourteenth century Giotto added his initials to his frescoes, and later it was Dürer and then Turner. By the time of the impressionists, signing extended to the artist’s name, often in full. Amongst painters, authorship was celebrated.
There was, however, no such recognition for architects, at least those working in France, and when Charles Garnier broke this rule of anonymity in 1875 all hell was let loose. At 35, Garnier had won a competition to design the Paris Opera. The building is, indeed, magnificent and it is easy to see why his daring, inventive and visionary design had been selected.
He did receive some criticism for making the building too colourful; in a society where monochromy was lauded, a splash of colour was bound to cause trouble! But this criticism was nothing compared to the fury mounted against him for being immodest. Once the wording on an ornate golden cupola in the Opera’s entrance lobby had been deciphered, the knives were out. In English it reads; “I put this; Charles Garnier; architect; 1861 – 1875”. This very public announcement of the identity of the building’s architect, was a declaration seen by architectural establishment as shamefully immodest and professionally unacceptable.
The criticism stung Garnier and it took years for him to respond. Once a man of influence, he encouraged architects to announce their work openly and without shame, and many Paris buildings built since then have the names of their designers carved in stone on a wall near the main entrance. Simply reading these names, and recognising the individual’s endeavour, gives me pleasure,
All this accords with my general love of provenance, but if I want this of others, the least I can do is reciprocate. However, achieving this is not always easy and, of course, my contribution is no match for the works of, for example, architects or painters.
Every morning during a recent holiday in Scotland (see joecollier.blog, ‘Art Provocateur’, August 20th 2017), we would eat homemade oatcakes at Henderson’s, a vegetarian restaurant in Edinburgh. I have eaten there for over 35 years and the staff, who now know me well, were happy to give me the recipe. It took weeks to anglicise the ingredients, sort out the ‘shortening’ and optimise the salt content, but once that was done the biscuits proved popular. Indeed, to satisfy demand I was soon baking over two dozen biscuits every week.
My sister, one of my more regular tasters, asked if I could bake her some for a special occasion, – she was down to bring the cheese and biscuits to a working lunch with friends. I agreed, and that was the start of an adventure that took a month – half of which was spent finding a company to produce an indenting stamp with which I could impress “Joe’s Oats” on each biscuit before baking.
The bespoke, named biscuits were duly delivered and the feedback on Joe’s Oats, was most favourable. Somehow I had joined the ranks of two of my favourite named biscuits “McVitie’s, The Original’ and “Dr Oliver, Inventor”.
Knowing the provenance of an object and, better still, the name of its originator, gives added value all round. Seeing a signature actually gives me a sense of being ‘in touch’ with the person who invented, built or created the object in front of me. Why should I be deprived of such pleasure?